Monday, 22 August 2016

Shopping and Trading in Roman Britain

The Romans never took to the the weather. The gag from the 1960s spoof movie Carry On Cleo is quite appropriate:

Bilius: Hail, Mark Antony!
Mark Antony: Hail - snow, rain, thunder, lightning - the lot!

What the Romans wanted was business, as they still say in Soho.

Britain was well known to the ancients, not only Greeks and Romans but also Carthaginians. Long before Pytheas of Marseille wrote the (lost) On the Ocean, Chimilkat (Himilco Poenas, the Punic) had visited; his account survived until at least late imperial times, because he is referred to three time in Ora Maritima, a poem on the sea coasts of the Roman Empire, by Rufus Festus Avienus in the early fifth century AD. You can read more about Pytheas in Barry Cunliffe’s The Extraordinary Voyage of Pytheas the Greek (Penguin 2001).

Julius Caesar would have had access to both Himilco and Pytheas, and it is quite possible that the opening parts of his description of Britain in Book IV of De Bello Gallico is based on that. There are descriptions of Britain’s distinctive shape and nature in the Getica of Jordanes, on the very first page of Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica and in Saxo Grammaticus’ Gesta Danorum. All of those seem to draw on Caesar. There may have been other Greek and Roman peripli of Britain that we know nothing about.

As Britain was a major source of tin for bronze (still important in the Iron Age) there had been trade for a millennium and more before Rome conquered. Diodorus Siculus, a younger contemporary of Caesar, wrote in detail about Britons taking tin out to an island to be loaded onto deeper-water ships (Biblioteka Historike).

Since tin was and is mined in Cornwall and west Devon, the island may have been St Michael’s Mount. Alternative choices include Brownsea Island in Poole Harbour, Dorset, which curiously was the site of the world’s first major Boy Scout jamboree; there is an Iron Age harbour at nearby Hengistbury Head , Hampshire-until-1974 (Hynesbury Head until the 19th century and nothing to do with the Anglo-Saxon figure Hengist). Another possibility is Scilly, the island group off the west coast of Cornwall; at that time, it may have been a single island as Roman sources call it Insula Scillonia (‘Syllan’ in Cornish).

According to Diodorus, a Greek-speaking Sicilian, ships from the Veneti, a people from Gaul, living in the area near the mouth of the River Loire, collected the tin from the island and brought it over to their area. This is the area today known as the Vendée, derived from their name (as is its ancient capital Vannes). They then loaded it into shallow-draught boats and took it all the way upstream on the Loire, then down the Rhone to the Mediterranean and thence to Italy. There would have needed to have been portage from the upper Loire to the mid-Rhone, south of Lyon, as there are rapids on the Rhone at this point. The portage from Loire to Rhone takes one across the Morvan and Gévaudan. 

Evan today, Burgundy's Morvan landscape is quite daunting
This is even today a wild region and not one known for its friendliness to outsiders. Anyone who reads Robert Louis Stevenson’ Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes (1879) will be surprised at the hostility he encountered there. One of the surveyors of the map maker Jacques Cassini was murdered there because the locals assumed he was a Parisian spy, or worse, a tax collector. My point is this was a highly valued cargo and the profit must have been extremely good to warrant such long-distance trade.

Clearly the tin trade was well known in Caesar’s day. As with all trade and exchange, what did they exchange the tin for? The best guess is wine. This seems to be the case in later, Christian, times, when ships from Gaul called in to deliver wine, needed for the Christian Eucharist.

Another item to trade was hunting dogs. A letter survives from Cicero to Caesar asking him to bring him back a hunting dog. These dogs may have been known as Agassians, a breed considered to be the ancestor of the springer spaniel. This dog is also mentioned by Grattius Falliscus (Cynegeticon, time of Augustus), Strabo, Tacitus, Nemesianus (Cynegetica, 4th century AD) and Claudian at the turn of the fourth and fifth centuries. Strabo (Geography IV.5.2) says the exports of Britain were ‘grain, hides, cattle, iron, silver, slaves, and clever hunting-dogs’.

We can see images of these dogs on colour-coated ware from the lower Nene Valley (modern Huntingdonshire) and in pots found at Corbridge, near Hadrian’s Wall.

Nene Valley Ware from Huntingdon, with Hunting Dogs
Hunting Dog Pot from Corbridge, Hadrian's Wall

Wool was a major export from England in the later Middle Ages. Many handsome towns with large churches in the Cotswolds and Suffolk earnt their wealth through the strong demand from Flemish weavers for high quality wool. But while Strabo knew about cattle and hides, he didn’t mention wool. It is however referred to in a letter from by Suetonius Paulinus, governor of Britannia Inferior, when he sends someone a tossia Britannica, a kind of woolen blanket, while at Tampium. (See AR Birley The Roman Government of Britain, OUP (2005) pp342-4). Suetonius Paulinus was based in York and is recorded at Corbridge. Modern Yorkshire is well known for wool; the area around Bradford, Leeds and Dewsbury was until recently known as the Woolen District.

Britain was in the Roman Empire for up to 367 years (Egypt by comparison was in the Empire for 684 years); that’s fifteen generations. Since there was already a solid trade between Britain and the empire, what did the Romans win additionally from Britain that they couldn’t get through trade?

One idea that could be explored is debt. Pre-Roman trade was exchange, and while that entails some concept of relative value, sale and purchase were not meditated through cash. There were of course many pre-Roman coins in Britain, based on the Stater of Philip II of Macedon via Gaulish copies. They should be viewed as handy-shaped pieces of bullion, rather than as part of a complex system of trade. They were issued by rulers, but rulers have always seen controlling the safety and standard of markets as part of their functions. The use of iron rods as a form of currency is more that of standard size bullion.

The revolt of Boudicca in the reign of Nero was not spontaneous as is often suggested. Cassius Dio blames it on the introduction of debt. Rich Romans had offered to make key Britons rich, and the Britons had taken the money with no understanding of servicing a loan through repayments, dancing attendance daily as clients of the Romans, let alone the abstract idea of interest. When the Britons couldn’t repay, the loan sharks (publicani) seized property, enslaved subjects and generally ‘sent the boys round’. In a very slightly different context, they thought it was liberation when in fact, as Tacitus remarked in Agricola 21, it was part of their enslavement.

One of the recently discovered London Writing Tablets, from the Bloomberg Excavation and dated before AD53, refers to a debt. The Guardian (accessed 1 June 2016) quotes:

In the consulship of Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus for the second time and of Lucius Calpurnius Piso, on the 6th day before the Ides of January (ie 8 January AD57) I Tibullus the freedman of Venustus have written and say that I owe Gratus the freedman of Spurius 105 denarii from the price of the merchandise which has been sold and delivered. This money I am due to repay him or the person whom the matter will concern

There are references to to Tertius the brewer and Junius the cooper, suggesting a kind of goldrush frontier mentality, as trade and craft specialisms flooded into the new province, which at that time had not progressed beyond the south east. One early tablet says:

… because they are boasting through the whole market that you have lent them money. Therefore I ask you in your own interest not to appear shabby … you will not thus favour your own affairs

Diodorus mentions slaves as exports, and we may ask who these slaves were. Rufus wrote to Epillicus ‘make sure that you turn that slave girl into cash’. One of them was in London and the main topic was the ‘realisation’ of an estate. (Keith Bradley, Slavery and Society at Rome, 1994, CUP, p.106). It reads as this was an estate acquired for cash or as settlement of a debt; maybe the slave girl had been a housekeeper or mistress of the owner and was now surplus stock.

A graveyard unearthed as part of the excavations for the Crossrail new metro system indicates that a lot of Londoners were  immigrants, voluntary or not, including a young woman from North Africa; maybe she was turned into cash once too often.

But who were the enslaved in Britain in the time of Diodorus, since the Romans were customers, not slave drivers? Could it be Germanic settlers? Although it is centuries in in the future, Angles from Deira were supposedly being sold in the slave market of Rome in the later sixth century when the future Gregory the Great asked about them there. The Britons were quite happy to enslave Roman sailors shipwrecked off the Elbe (Tacitus Annals 2).

Goods were evidently retailed in Britain and were imported and exported. The Notitia Dignitatum makes reference to the ‘procurator of the weaving house at Winchester’ [Venta Belgarum] in the Britains. This was one of the woollen weaving state monopolies; a distinction is made with linen weavers. It seems there were no imperial estates in Britain at the time the Notitia was compiled, although we do know about the estate of the millionairess-turned-ascetic Melania the Younger, who sold her massive estates including those in Britain shortly before the end of Roman rule in AD410.

The Count of the Sacred Bounties, an imperial official charged with overseeing the emperor’s business monopolies, not only ran weaving sheds in Britain, but also had a provost of the storehouses in London and an accountant of the general tax in the Britains. Under him would have been a number of junior staff to calculate who was liable to pay what. To what extent tax farmers were used is unknowable, and there is little or no evidence. The four/five provinces which made up the Vicariate of the Britains had two receivers of taxes, which doesn’t sound a lot, although there was a phrase used ‘and the rest of the staff’. They probably used publicani if the population was as high as is believed (five to eight million people).

The Roman government of the Britains was driven by cash. Roman subjects, later made citizens, farmed to make a crop or livestock surplus, which they took to market to sell for cash, then (probably while in town) paid their taxes in cash. They would have also bought items they could not create themselves, such as salt, an imperial monopoly. Many would have paid a miller to mill their grain and a specialist baker for flatbreads and rolls, similar to those in Gaul. As Britain was a place to which people were sent into exile, there would have existed a market for home comforts, such as wine, to extract income from such people.

The coins of Carausius, minted in London, show considerable skills in engraving. You can see one here. It was quite an investment in propaganda for a peripheral part of the Empire. Financial problems must have impacted his reign, because Carausius was overthrown by Allectus, his procurator, suggesting that Carausius had spent too much and taxed too little, with the whole project at risk of collapse.

Coins of Carausius, Emperor of Britain
There is considerable evidence across the western empire of the collapse of a cash economy in the fourth century, following hyper-inflation in the third. In Britain this can be seen in several ways: first the rise of great houses, termed ‘villae’ in conventional history, but more like manors in truth. Sharecroppers (Coloni adscripticii) on landed estates were close to the classic high medieval idea of a serf, unable to leave the land or sell possessions without the lord’s permission.

The lifestyle of such farms developed. The one at Shakenoak Farm, near Witney, Oxon is a good example.  It is the only known example of an inland fish farm (vivarium) from Roman Britain. Its lords lived a highly Romanised lifestyle, even buying an eye ointment, stamped. The site is discussed in Martin Henig and Paul Booth’s Roman Oxfordshire (2001). The vivarium seems to have been converted into a barn c.200 and the Romanised building converted into an Iron Age roundhouse. By the fifth century, the estate was fortified, and remains have been found of young men in Germanic clothes, presumed to be guards, buried aligned east-west in the Christian manner around the main building. Elsewhere on the estate remains of Germanic style women’s clothing has been found. The Ashmolean Museum’s website claims these point to the arrival of Germanic women from the continent. However, it could merely indicate a change of lifestyle, with local women adopting styles favoured by their husbands (just as in Britain, local women who marry immigrant or even local Muslim men are known to adopt Muslim women’s styles). The Germanic people may have exported women’s clothes to Britain. As Guy Halsall points out (Worlds of Arthur), the trip from Germania was not necessarily a single one way trip. As men’s clothing styles are those of the 420s, not 450s, they came across when markets were probably still working.

What we do see in the late imperial period is the steep decline of housing and possessions requiring specialist labour. In the immediate post-imperial period – within about thirty years – many Roman period buildings were deliberately and carefully demolished. We can see this very clearly in Wroxeter (Viroconium), where the lower courses of houses have been maintained, in order to pen livestock (White, R. and Barker, P. (1998) Wroxeter: Life and Death of a Roman City, Stroud: Tempus). 

View of Levelled-Off Buildings at Viroconium (Wroxeter)
There was no more specialist labour to maintain the upper floors and rooves. Some had been removed to Gaul by order of the Caesar Constantius Chlorus (recorded in a Latin Panegyric). Remaining craft labour would no doubt have worked on the expanding major villa complexes of the fourth century, but away from the towns, which were in major decline, and thus from the craft guilds.

The decline of towns, trade and money is well discussed by Simon Esmonde-Cleary in Esmonde-Cleary, A.S. (1989) The Ending of Roman Britain, London: B.T. Batsford. Money seems to be in confusion, with short supplies of coins in the London mint, and overstriking by coin forgers, something mainly seen in Britain (Numismatic Society website, consulted 20/8/16); perhaps the forgers were former mint employees. The existence of forgeries supposes a market for cash and therefore a cash market for goods. Maximus reopened the London mint for a while, minting solidi and siliquae, but otherwise the coinage came from Trier. Few coins were imported from Trier after AD404, and while Constantine III minted coins, that was only in Gaul and few have ever been found here. A number of low-value Roman coins continued in Britain till AD435.

The writings of St Patrick in the fifth century AD give his birthplace as Bannaventem Taburniae; the Shops at Bannaventa. Bannaventa (which means ‘white market’ in Brythonic) is probably the site near Whilton Lodge, Northants. (The Bannaventa page in Wikipedia is full of mistakes.) Bannaventa sits on Watling Street. There were many attempts by Irish raiders and settlers to invade Roman in the fifth century. There is no reason why Bannaventem Taburniae needs to be in the west. The church run by Patrick’s father, the deacon Calpurnius, was at the local shops, where people still came in a market economy; Calpurnius was rich enough to have a small villa nearby, possibly inherited from his father, Potitus, also a priest and maybe part of Britain’s first Christian generation; Potitus is likely to have been a local nobleman (Confessio 1). The collapse of that market economy can be seen in the same source, where Patrick, returning to Britain in about AD420 found a land so denuded of people that he and the sailors who accompanied him saw nobody for a month, and within that time encountered a herd of pigs loose on the road and abandoned beehives (Confessio 19).

Within a decade or so of Patrick’s captivity in Ireland, there was a visit to Britain by Germanus of Auxerre to negotiate with religious dissidents, who were said to be dressed in magnificent robes, including a man called Agricola (Vita Sancti Germani). Magnificent robes are rarely off-the-peg items and would need high-quality dyes, which needed to be imported.


Recent archaeology, such as that at West Heslerton, East Riding, (notably the work of Dominic Powlesland) does indicate the survival of some urbanism, with a ‘ladder community’ gradually migrating in space. Recent work has also found that early medieval Britain had plots of land allocated along Roman roads, containing houses, smallholdings and, we may assume, some craft specialisation. Ken Dark has written about the survival of Romano-British polities as Dark-Age kingdoms (Civitas to Kingdom: British Political Continuity, 300-800, Leicester University Press, 1999), and that presumes a survival of farming, trades and loyalty.

Monday, 8 August 2016

The Altar of Victory and Religious Conflict in the Fourth Century

There was nothing inevitable about the triumph of Christianity. The short reign of Julian ‘the Apostate’ in AD359-63 may have been ended by his assassination in the midst of battle at the hands of Christians, as they later claimed. Had he lived, paganism, then known as Hellenism, might have survived better. Julian wanted religious freedom and stopped using taxpayers’ money to build Christian churches.

A later and neglected emperor also proposed religious freedom. He was Eugenius, who is called a usurper in Roman histories. However, he was appointed perfectly regularly by the Roman Senate as Western Emperor from 22 August 392 to 6 September 394, when he was murdered after losing the Battle of the River Frigidus to Theodosius.

 Although he was himself a Christian, Eugenius recognised the traditional Roman beliefs and rededicated the Temple of Venus and Rome, restored the Altar of Victory within the Curia (the Senate building, still standing and now a church), a source of contention and held by many pagans to be a deliberate provocation. The arrival of Eugenius at the imperial palace in Milan caused St Ambrose to leave his see. Eugenius also fired most of the senior imperial officers including the praetorian prefect of Italy and the urban prefect of Rome. Although he relied on the Frankish army commander Arbogast, he was not ruled by him (unlike Honorius, utterly dependent on Stilicho from AD395 to 407). This picture of him used for his coins shows him bearded, like Julian, and not shaven like Constantine and the other emperors whom Julian called ‘beard haters’ (they took too much care in their appearance, unlike the Hellenes, according to Julian in his book Misapogon, the Beard Hater).

Emperor Eugenius, Bearded
There was therefore a window of opportunity from the reign of Julian to that of Eugenius for the older religion to hold its own. Clearly the religion of the emperor was a crucial factor, as elite Romans could feel the benefits of imperial favour if they accepted certain religious beliefs. Christianity was itself riven by conflict between Catholic and Arian factions, which held rival Church Councils to condemn each other. This reached a head when the Christian philosopher Priscillian was executed by the Western Emperor Maximus in Trier in AD385 on trumped-up charges of sorcery: Christians had begun to murder each other. Even St Ambrose and St Martin of Tours opposed this judicial murder, on the grounds that Christian rulers ought not to execute priests for doctrinal matters.

While the Christians were beginning to slaughter each other, the pagans were holding dinner parties.

A fictionalised account of one of these is the book Saturnalia by Macrobius Ambrosius Theodosius, probably an African, around AD390. The form of this book owes much to the classical table talk works such as the Symposium of Plato, Table Talk (Ton Hepta Sothon Symposion) of Plutarch and the Attic Nights (Noctes Atticae) of Aulus Gellius. The party was held at the house of Vettius Agorius Praetextatus, who died in AD384. One person’s dinner party is someone else’s conspiracy.

Vettius was a leading figure in the late flowering of paganism in the empire. He was a politician and author, and held numerous priesthoods in the ancient colleges of Roman cults. He had to know Greek because he was a quindecimvir sacri faciundi, one of the fifteen men who were permitted to consult the Sibylline Books at times of national crisis; the books were burnt by Stilicho in 405.

Vettius and his wife Aconia Fabia Paulina lived in middle of Rome in a palace amid huge gardens, the Horti Vettiani, close to the Termini railway station, which was excavated in the late 19th century; this is where they celebrated Saturnalia with Macrobius and friends. In the year of his death, AD384, he was urban prefect and consul-designate for 385. Although his death at the age of 69 was not abnormal, it was very convenient. The actual western consul for 385 was Arcadius, the future emperor, and the eastern consul was Bauto, a powerful Frank, whose daughter he would marry a decade later. Would it be too far-fetched to wonder whether Theodosius tried to cancel the consulship of Vettius and when he refused, had the old man bumped off? 1 January 385 was Arcadius’s eighth birthday, so maybe the consulship was a rather elaborate birthday present?

We do have a quite long dedicatory verse from Paulina, Vettius’s wife:

The splendor of my kinship granted me
no greater gift than this: that I seemed fit
to be your wife. For in my husband’s name,
Agorius, I find my light and grace.
You, created from proud seed, have shone
on fatherland, on senate, and on spouse
with rightness of conduct, of learning, and of mind.
You won the crown of virtue in this way.
   Whatever has been penned in either tongue
by sages free to enter heaven’s door
(whether poetry composed in expert lines,
or prose that’s uttered with a looser voice),
you’ve read, and left it better than you found.
   But these are little things. You piously
in mind’s most secret parts had hid away
the mysteries you learned of sacred rites.
The many-faceted numen of the gods
you knew to worship; and your faithful spouse
you bound to you as colleague in the rites,
now sharing what you knew of gods and men.
   Why speak of earthly powers, public praise,
and joys men seek with sighs? You called
them fleeting, counted them as small,
while you won glory in the priestly garb.
   The goodness of your teaching, husband, freed
me from death’s lot; you took me, pure,
to temples, made me servant to the gods,
stood by while I was steeped in mystery.
Devoted consort, you honored me with blood
of bull, baptized me priestess of Cybele
and Attis; readied me for Grecian Ceres’ rites;
and taught me Hecate’s dark secrets three.
   On your account, all praise me as devout;
because you spread my name throughout the world,
I, once unknown, am recognized by all.
How could my husband’s spouse not win applause?
Rome’s matrons look to me as paradigm,
and if their sons resemble yours they think
them handsome. Women and men alike
now long to be upon the honor roll
which you, as master, introduced of old.
   Now all these things are gone, and I, your wife,
am wasting in my grief. I had been blest
if gods had granted me the sooner grave.
But, husband, even so I’m blest: for yours
I am, and was, and after death will be.
(translation made by Peter Donnelly)

Statue of a Vestal Virgin, believed a replica
The cult of Vesta remained important, and Vettius was a priest in that cult and associated with the Vestal Virgins, as was his friend, the author Symmachus. Even Christian emperors like Valentinian I and Gratian respected Vettius and allowed such things as the restoration of the Porticus of the Di Consentes in AD367, the last pagan shrine allowed in Rome; these are the classic ‘twelve Olympians’, the ‘gods we have consented to’, the set brought over from the Greek world in the fourth century BC. It may not be a coincidence that the emperor, Valentinian, was gravely ill that year and made his son Gratian co-Augustus with him in the event of his sudden death. Permission to restore the Porticus may have been conditional on pagans praying for the restored health of the emperor; in any case, it was not a good time to be making enemies.

Porticus of the Di Consentes, Rome (restored)
Vettius made an important contribution to order in Rome by settling a vicious papal dispute between a faction loyal to Ursinus and one loyal to Damasus, both of whom were ordained pope late in 366; hundreds on both sides died in major riots. Vettius, urban prefect for 367 ruled in favour of Damasus, who continued as pop until 384. Is it a coincidence that both Vettius and the pope died so closely together? Information on the dispute is found in Ammianus, Jerome and many others; an excellent modern commentary on the incident is by Maijastina Kahlos ‘Vettius Agorius Praetextatus and the Rivalry Between 
the Bishops in Rome in 366-367’ in Acta Philologica Fennica Vol. XXXI, 1997.

The murderous struggle between Ursinus and Damasus was not one of conflict between Catholics and Arians, but a straight shot for power between nobles for whom the papacy was the supreme prize: the pope couldn’t be fired by anyone, least of all the emperor. According to Jerome, Vettius joked with Damasus ‘Make me bishop of Rome, and I’ll become a Christian’.

Kahlos proposes that Vettius’ ability to solve this dispute was not because as a pagan he was outside of the struggle. However, he had the backing and confidence of the emperor; the previous urban prefect, Viventius, a Pannonian, ran away from the mobs to lie low in the suburbs, but maybe Vettius was made of sterner stuff. Ammianus refers to his virtus and common touch. It does seem, however, that Vettius was allowed to restore the Porticus of the Di Consentes in 367 by a sick emperor and with the connivance of a newly pope as a reward for choosing Damasus over Ursinus.

Emperor Valentinian II
The key incident which soured relations between Christians and Hellenes in the late fourth century, and which led to much damage to the empire, was the Altar of Victory Crisis. This was a gold statue placed in the Senate House in 29BC by Augustus to mark the Battle of Actium; it carried an ancient figure of Nike captured in 272BC. Constantius II had it removed in AD357, but it was restored after a couple of years by Julian, then removed again by order of Gratian in 382; after his death in battle in 383, Symmachus and Vettius wrote to Valentinian II in 384 for it to be restored, but this was denied because of the influence of Ambrose of Milan, as was a further petition to Theodosius in 391. Eugenius restored it in 392-4, and it was again removed in 394 or later by Theodosius or Stilicho and is never heard of again. Given the aggressive anti-Hellene attitudes of both men and their bishops, it was probably melted down for its gold and jewels.

Augustan coin showing gold statue of the Altar of Victory
After the death of Vettius, the head of the Vestals, Coelia Concordia, raised a statue to him at the Temple of Vesta. She turned out to be the final Chief Vestal, as her beliefs were suppressed in 391 on the orders of Theodosius, occupying Rome after the defeat of Maximus in 388, and the temple and its supporting building were seized in 394 and turned over to house more of Rome’s bloated quasi-military civil service. The fate of the second temple at Alba Longa is unknown.

In turn, Vettius’ widow, Paulina, raised a statue in honour of Coelia Concordia, the base of which has been found in excavations of the couple’s house. Coelia seems to have lived on for many years.

Even amongst the Christian and other non-classical believers in Rome, the idea developed that because Rome had deserted the gods, the gods had deserted Rome. Classical Roman public religion had never been theological, but rather transactional. The Latin tag is Do Ut Des, I (the supplicant) give so that thou (the god) mayst give. Acts of piety included restoring and even building new temples.

This sentiment of desertion led to the revision of history to downplay Rome’s increasing weakness and dependence on peripheral and adversarial people, such as the Goths, Franks, Sarmatians and Arabs, seen in Orosius’ revisionist Septem Historiae Adversus Paganos, issued shortly after that. From the reign of Valens onward, it became necessary for the emperor to be backed by a warlord, who would hold a series of Roman titles and dignities, but who would work outside the traditional Roman systems.

Bauto, mentioned above, is a good example of early success. He was a Frank, and rose to be consul in AD385. His son was Arbogast, the power behind the throne of Valentinian II and Eugenius. Theodosius in AD394 defeated Arbogast, who is believed to have committed suicide shortly after; neither of them was to see Bauto’s daughter Eudoxia marry Theodosius’s son Arcadius in May 395 and become the de factor ruler of the eastern empire and mother to joint rulers Theodosius II and Aelia Pulcheria, his sister. Bauto was a Frank and a Catholic, which contradicts the idea that the Franks were all pagans.

Another powerful figure was Victor, a Romanised Sarmatian. The Sarmatians were an Iranian people living in what is now Ukraine. They alternated between being Roman allies and Roman adversaries, as so many people did, and served as far west as Britain as armoured cavalry, both men and horses wearing chainmail, as can be seen on the Arch of Trajan in this picture.

Sarmatians in Chainmail, Arch of Titus

 Victor served Rome loyally and rose to become Consul in AD369. He married the daughter of Arab queen Mavia (Mawiyaa), someone who deserves to be better known. Her story is quite similar to that of the famous Zenobia of Palmyra a century earlier in that she took over in AD375 from her husband Al-Hawari as ruler of the Tanukh, an Arab people who had come to dominate Syria and Palestine.

The Tanukh were strongly Christian and looked to Constantinople to provide them with bishops. However Valens, with his usual ability to make the wrong decision, was an Arian and they were Catholics, and he sent them an Arian bishop, whom they rejected. Mavia met a monk called Moses, whom she raised to be the bishop, probably of Aleppo. Commanding her own armies, she swept across Roman Arabia, Syria, Palestine and threatened Egypt, easily beating the Romans.

The Romans had to sue for peace, which she accepted on her own terms: formal recognition of Moses as a Catholic bishop. She then married her daughter Chasidat to the imperial commander Victor. Tanukh cavalry forces then supported Valens at the Battle of Adrianople in AD378, which of course the Romans and Arabs together lost to the Visigoths. Sidelined by the new emperor, Theodosius, the Tanukh eventually rebelled again in AD383; Mavia outlived them all, dying in Anasartha (Khanasir) a town east of Aleppo in AD425, having ruled her tribal alliance for fifty years.

Victor was powerful enough within the eastern empire to confront his emperor, Valens, about the latter’s Arianism and antagonism of the Goths. He tried in vain to have Valens wait until western imperial forces could arrive at Adrianople, but was ignored, and tried to rescue Valens from the field of battle and successfully enabled his own troops to emerge unscathed. He seems also to have died in AD383.

We seem to be finding a lot of people dying in 383-4 and again in 393-4. All of them seem to be connected with the Arian-Catholic and Catholic-Hellene disputes, added to which seem to be the malign influence of the emperor Theodosius I, adding imperial politics to Christian hatred to ignite fear and hatred of Hellenes.

Emperor Theodosius I, Unbearded
In the late fourth century, we have a curious mix where orthodox Catholic Christian barbarians – Franks, Arabs and Sarmatians from the Ukraine – were trying to correct doctrinal disputes between heterodox Christian emperors, while wise and educated followers of traditional Roman religion were brokering peace between Christian mobs and were rewarded with the right to co-exist. It is possible to see that that they might have survived and through their wisdom prevented the terminal stage of the western empire from happening.

Friday, 22 July 2016

SPQR by Mary Beard: What the Romans thought?



Who will read this book? Every author has an ideal reader. For an ancient history book, there are likely to be four: undergraduate history/classics students; postgraduate students; fellow academics; and the intelligent lay reader. In the case of teledon Mary Beard, we might add the loved one who buys a spouse or whoever a book saying ‘you love all that Roman stuff, so I saw this and thought of you’.

It’s hard therefore to work out who Professor Beard’s ideal readers are. They know Latin well enough to understand complex matters of vocabulary, derivation and syntax, yet they need to be told that the Punic Wars are named for the Latin word for Carthaginian (punicus) without being told why (the word refers to the Phoenicians, who founded Carthage). They can follow complex arguments about Cicero’s speeches against Catilina, yet they need to be told that a Roman colony ‘had no connection at all’ with a modern colony, which is itself untrue. In any case, the millennial student reader has never lived in a world with colonies.

Professor Mary Beard in earlier days

 Anyone wanting to read a history of Rome will be disappointed, since Mary Beard is non-linear. She opens with a chapter about Cicero; this is not surprising since her PhD thesis was about Cicero. Then we skip back to Romulus and a variety of things about him. But wait, does Romulus even belong in a history book? If ever there was a real man, by whatever name, who can be termed Romulus, his existence is so heavily mythologised that he must be regarded as a mythical foundation figure, just as Theseus is claimed as the founder of Athens. Then there’s a wider discussion about the supposed kings of Rome. These are again myth and can only be discussed as such. Yet there seems to be an enduring idea that Rome’s ‘true’ past can be recovered by de-mythologising it all, as if you could recover from a bar brawl by setting the chairs straight.

The book ends with the enfranchisement of all free adult male residents by Caracalla in AD212. Therefore the empire is covered for 241 years and not covered for 264 years up to AD476, the supposed date of the ‘end’ of the empire (even though that empire survived for a further thousand years). There is a good reason to call for such a book to be written, and for Dame Averil Cameron to write it, since it seems that Professor Beard is not expert on the later empire.



This book has no footnotes, making it hard to work out some of the coy allusions. For example, on p.22, there is a reference to an unnamed Greek writer living in Rome in the mid second century BC. If I go to the further reading given for this chapter, I turn to p.540, where my personal suspicion that this is about Polybius is shown to be right. But why not say it in the body of the text? With later chapters it gets worse, because the running head on a particular page gives the chapter title, but not its number; the further reading is given by chapter number, with no title, so the reader who mid-chapter needs to find out something has to find the chapter number by returning to its first page, then go to the further reading and work out which book might contain a path to discover the point queried. There is a timeline, but given at the back of the book and not referenced within the body of the book. There are maps and illustrations, but one of the maps, a plan of the Forum Romanum, contains a label of the ‘Arch of Septimus (sic) Severus’; as this is the paperback edition, surely such an error could have been corrected?

If this book is aimed at undergraduate students, it is not one they can dip into, as it is very closely argued throughout and the index is very limited. Postgraduate students and academics would want much more detail in the form of proper references. The vast array of Professor Beard’s reading put forward as ‘further reading’ would appear to be that available to a senior university professor in, say, Cambridge and not easily available to the average punter.

Professor Clifford Ando of the University of Chicago comments in his review of this book that ‘the simple fact of the matter is that, the more one studies Roman narratives of early Rome, the more they appear calques on Greek histories’ (The New Rambler Review, 29 February 2016). I believe this to be true. The Romans were always rather chippy about Greece, hence Horace’s satirical comment about rustic Latium being taken prisoner by captive Greece or Juvenal’s equally barbed comment about Romans being unable to eat their dinners except at exquisitely made furniture. To act the Greek, for rich Romans, was to have won first prize in the game of life.

Professor Clifford Ando, University of Chicago

 Ando also comments that ‘In light of these reflections, Beard's History seems to me in some respects an oddity. Chronologically, it extends from the foundation period to the universalization of Roman citizenship by Caracalla. But a surprising portion of the narrative—a full third—treats periods about which the Romans confessed themselves nearly wholly ignorant’(idem). This too is true. Professor Beard jumps forward and back in time to illustrate her narrative. This is something I tell my own undergraduates not to do, but rather to contextualise their sources. Of course, Mary Beard does not uncouple her words from their contexts as students tend to do.

But this book is termed a history and the general understanding is that a history will start at one point and go on to another point and then end. Anyone seeking that narrative thrust will not find it here. I do have one unanswered and perhaps unanswerable question: did anyone really read Cicero’s speeches, Livy’s histories and so on? If so, why are they nearly all fragmentary or lost? Certainly very few ever saw the tomb inscription of Scipio Barbartus, sealed in the late republic. I also doubt that the works of writers read by a handful of intellectuals out of the hundred million population of the early empire adequately represent the thought world of many people, although some of those people would have been disproportionately powerful, appearing as pundits in their own societies.


Reading the disjunctures between chapters, I did wonder how this book came to be written. Its lack of references suggests that these were originally thought of as conference papers and only later reconfigured into a book. Professor Beard has a common theme, that historical narratives reflected then-current ideological differences rather than hard facts. By this token, we can equally call the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle a history on a par with Tacitus, because both contain scraps of truth, lies, misunderstandings, wishful thinking and plagiarism, fried up into a bubble-and-squeak of history. It takes a Mary Beard to add flavour, which she does, always interesting, always diverting. But if you want to know Rome beyond the monumental, outside the city with the gods and monsters, this may not be the book for you.